August 14, 2006

Into the Wood

There are some places we have never visited whereof, nevertheless, we have in mind preconceived images, captured from movies, books, or conversations. Before I came to Sweden, my preconceptions of it were sketchy at best: the only piece of fiction set in this country that I can recall having read was a single, typically odd story by Robert Aickman (whose work I have briefly mentioned before), entitled ‘Into the Wood.’ The story’s protagonist, Margaret Sawyer, accompanies her husband Henry to Sovastad, a lakeside town in central Sweden, where he has been contracted to work in a project to build a ‘big, wide, dangerous, costly road … across the mountains into Norway.’

Detail of a photograph of some mossy stones, at Kylen, nr. Osby.

One Sunday, on a drive from the town up into the nearby mountains, Margaret catches sight of an isolated building, and, upon enquiring of it, is told by her Swedish hosts that it is a Kurhus or Sanatorium, albeit one ‘not only for the sick:’ a place for ‘rest cures.’ When Henry is called away to Stockholm for a series of meetings, Margaret, intrigued by its appealingly elegant façade, opts to stay at the Kurhus rather than at one of the town’s hotels. Rising from an uncharacteristic daytime nap after her arrival, she emerges into an all-but deserted building. and wanders it a little lost until, from its terrace, she sees a fellow-guest approaching from the surrounding forest: this happens to be another Englishwoman, who tells Margaret a good deal more about the Kurhus and its residents.

Detail of a photograph of twinned tree-trunks, at Kylen, nr. Osby.

The Jamblichus Kurhus (named after the first of the ‘seven sleepers of Ephesus’ to rise) is an establishment for chronic insomniacs, some of whom are so severely afflicted that they never sleep at all. Such extraordinary sleeplessness makes its sufferers ill-suited to life in the wider world, and, as ‘sleepers cannot live for long with an insomniac … it is like living with something supernatural,’ many of them eventually resort to such specialist sanatoria. It is explained that the Kurhus is set in a special wood, through which run innumerable paths, which have been trodden by the sleepless for centuries. After resting through the afternoon, the insomniacs rise before dinner, and spend most of the night following these paths through the wood.

Detail of a photograph of mossy fallen branches, at Kylen, nr. Osby.

Margaret tries following one of these paths for herself, and, as she haphazardly pursues a criss-crossing way between the trees, she is struck by an epiphany of sorts: a simultaneous rejection of the things her roadbuilding husband and suburban neighbours stand for, along with a vaguely-felt yearning for transcendence, symbolized by the ‘empty but labyrinthine’ forest. To cut a short story shorter, Margaret returns to Sovastad (which, translated, literally means ‘Sleeptown’), to find herself feeling altogether out of place, and, inexplicably, quite unable to sleep. When the time comes for them to leave Sweden, Margaret persuades Henry to let her return to stay at the Kurhus indefinitely…

Detail of a photograph of some woodland at Kylen, nr. Osby.

This story came back to my mind during our vacation last week, as the house where we stayed adjoined a very beautiful expanse of woodland: just one inlet, in effect, of what amounts to an all-surrounding sea of trees in that part of the country. Unlike the woods around Aickman’s Kurhus, these were clearly seldom traversed, being crossed here and there by old, low stone walls, by felled, mossy trunks, or blocked with thickets. Even so, it wasn’t hard for me to feel a faint something of that transcendence he hints at, as I stopped to admire a sunlit clearing after squeezing through mushroomy, spiderwebbed undergrowth.

Detail of a photograph of the decor (tools) at the house where we stayed in Kylen, nr. Osby.


Detail of a photograph of the decor (ghosts) at the house where we stayed in Kylen, nr. Osby.

We enjoyed a fine, peaceful while at the house, whose walls were decorated with rusty old garden tools on one hand, but which was elsewhere adorned with images & figurines of ghosts: one felt that here perhaps were two decorative personalities locked in unresolved opposition. We explored the vicinites of Osby, Markaryd, and Ă„lmhult; I finished reading Neil Kenny’s The Uses of Curiosity (see below), and skimmed rapidly through the three volumes of the Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius, before taking up Denton Welch’s short novel In Youth is Pleasure. I did some cooking, took a few photographs & slept like a log.

Detail of a photograph of the attic lounge/rec-room at the house where we stayed in Kylen, nr. Osby.

We enjoyed some hot, sunny weather at the start of the week, but then, on Wednesday, were overtaken by a storm-front bringing with it torrential rain, and trailed by cooler and cloudier days.

Detail of a photograph of the rain & the trees at Kylen, nr. Osby.

Dreams are misleading, because they make life seem real.—R. A.

Posted by misteraitch at August 14, 2006 10:06 AM

Ah, beautiful. My sister has a house in rural Norway, which I'll have to visit some time. Gellius is full of delights: I particularly liked Pythagorean teaching practices (1.3?), on literary styles (6.14: "Each of these styles... is more brilliant when it is chastely and moderately adorned; when it is rouged and bepowdered, it becomes mere jugglery."), the use of Homer in Vergil (7.9), on 'maturus' (10.11) and 'elegantia' (11.2), and the amusing story of the stoic in the storm (19.1).

Posted by: Conrad H. Roth on August 14, 2006 09:03 PM

All very odd. Let's see. You slept like a log, and you show us pictures of two logs lapped in moss that look rather humanoid. And you wonder how tools (some of them rather nasty-looking) might lead to ghosts, and tell us a story about a woman who makes herself into a kind of supernatural being--but one who never sleeps like a log--who spends her time wandering the forests at night, no doubt pausing to perch on her green mossy friends as she goes.

Posted by: marlyat2 on August 14, 2006 11:25 PM

Great to see that there are other people out there appreciating Aickman's strange stories. "Into the wood" is certainly one of his finest.

Posted by: Ted on October 10, 2006 06:54 PM
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